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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Suffering Serves the Kingdom


 


"These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.” Colossians 4:11-12


According to verse 10, Aristarchus and Mark send their greetings via Paul’s letter to the Colossians. According to verse 11 Jesus Justus sends his greetings to the Colossians. According to verse 12, Epaphras, who evangelised Colossae, sends his greetings to them. And according to verse 14, Luke the doctor and Demas also send their greetings to the Colossians. Six men in total; three Jews – Aristarchus, Mark and Jesus Justus – and three Gentiles – Epaphras, Luke and Demas.


That’s a lot of salutation to a church that’s seriously flirting with heresy. And with good reason. I want us to see, this morning, how their example serves to both encourage us and warn us. But we need to know these men a little to grasp how.


The Jew, Aristarchus, we know, from Acts 19, was a travelling companion of Paul’s - a Macedonian from Thessalonica. We know that he was seizedby the craftsmen of Ephesus when they feared that their business in idol manufacture would be impacted by the preaching of Paul and his associates. He was briefly, it seems then, at the mercy of an angry mob, so he must have had cause to fear for his life on that occassion.


We also know, because of Acts 27, that he accompanied Paul on the ship that took Paul as a prisoner to Rome. Which, may be the reason why Paul refers to him in verse 10 as a ‘fellow prisoner’ – not one by force but one by choice; he chose to travel with Paul as a prisoner to Rome. That also means he was shipwrecked with Paul, another life-on-the-line type event. So, we get the picture, I think, of a faithful Christian Jew who was willing to risk a lot for the cause of the gospel.


Jesus Justus, on the other hand, we know little about. We know he was a Jew, but this is the only mention of him in the bible. We do know from verse 11 though, that he was a co-worker with Paul and a comfort toPaul. All three of the Jewish men mentioned were co-workers and comforters with and to Paul. They were also a minority group. They were the only Jews who were co-workers with the Jew Paul, all his other co-workers were Gentiles.


Epaphras was a gentile – the one who had been the Colossian evangel. Colossians 1 sheds some light on him. He was the one who spoke ‘the true message of the gospel’ to the Colossians. Paul describes him as a ‘fellow servant’; a ‘faithful minister’ and the one who reported to Paul and his associates the news that there were new believers in Colossae – a new church had sprung up there, even without Paul’s efforts in that location!

In the letter to Philemon, Paul describes him as a ‘fellow prisoner’ just like Aristarchus is described here. And right here in chapter 4, we’re told that Epaphras ‘is always wrestling in prayer for you’ at Colossae.


Another gentile with Paul in Rome was Luke ‘the doctor’ (v.13). Strange to think that the man who wrote so much of our new testament is only mentioned by name three times – once here, and two other places. He is one of the five men who send their greetings to Philemon in Paul’s other letter. But we learn most about Luke from 2 Timothy 4. Paul tells us there that, ‘only Luke is with me’.


As Paul writes the letter to the Colossians he appears to have at least six companions. But remember he’s awaiting his hearing with Caesar. And as we noted last time, the fires of Rome were blamed on the followers of Christ, and that served to greatly increase the persecution of Christians in Rome.


Whether for that reason or others, Paul tells Timothy that at his hearing ‘no one came to his support, but everyone deserted him’. That sounds like, perhaps even Luke had deserted him for fear of association with ‘The Way’. But, by the time Paul writes to Timothy the second time, Luke is with Paul – even though Paul is probably now awaiting a death sentence.


We also, understand from Luke’s writings that he was a well-read, educated scholar, a doctor, and a historian. We know he was an historian because of his gospel account and his account of Acts that were both written for Theophilus.


From chapter 16 of Acts onwards Luke writes in the first person ‘we’ and ‘us’. That means he was with Paul and Silas and watched them being thrown into prison in Philippi. It means he witnessed Paul being seized and set upon in Jerusalem. An event in which Paul would very likely have been beaten to death there and then, had Roman troops not intervened. Luke saw all this. And Luke was aboard that ship that took Paul to Rome along with Aristarchus. So, he too, would have been ship wrecked.


The picture we get then, of these four characters – two Jews and two Gentiles – is that they are all familiar with suffering for the sake of advancing the gospel.


Aristarchus is willing to be a fellow prisoner. Jesus Justus a fellow worker. Epaphras a spiritual wrestler. And Luke a faithful travelling companion even in the thick of riots, beatings, imprisonments and shipwrecks.


That means that suffering; hardship; trial, for the gospel comes in lots of different shapes and sizes. Jesus said, ‘whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:38), and it’s Godwho makes and shapes that cross for his people.


For Paul that cross looked like imprisonment and beheading. For Luke it looked like shipwreck and danger. For Epaphras it looked like boldness in the place he came from with the message of the gospel and like wrestling in prayer day and night. For Aristarchus it looked like prison. For Jesus Justus it looked like hard work – long hours; lots of foot work, maybe.


All of those men are carrying their crosses – they look different, but they are all suffering in the cause of the gospel. Suffering, because their time is squeezed. Suffering, because their bodies are battered. Suffering, because their relationships are broken. Suffering, because their energy is spent. Suffering, because their lives are beaten by the winds of trial. All suffering in their own way according to God’s appointment for them.

And this is exactly what we should expect. The new testament is saltedwith the rhetoric of suffering.


Romans 8 – who doesn’t love Romans 8; more than conquerors? – yes! But it says this too, verse 17: ‘Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory’.

Or, Peter. Here’s what he says, ‘But rejoice in as much as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed’ (1 Peter 4:13).


Or, what about John. Revelation 1:9, ‘I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus’.


Or, what about this from Paul. Philippians 1:29, ‘For it has been grantedto you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him’.


One more, though there are many others. 2 Thessalonians 1, ‘Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.

All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering’.


And this last text becomes particularly important for us as we scratch away at Colossians 4:10-15. Here in Colossians, Paul views all these associates in terms of one thing – their effectiveness for the kingdomof God.


He laments that the three Jews he names are the only Jews who are co-workers with him in this one cause – namely, the Kingdom of God. No other Jews get mentioned because they’re not co-workers for the cause. Therefore, the gentiles that get mentioned, Paul also considers them co-workers for the Kingdom, as he writes this letter.


The Kingdom is the cause that Paul is serving. The Kingdom is the cause that his associates are serving. And the Kingdom is the cause that we must be serving too. But make no mistake, look what service for the Kingdom looks like – it looks like suffering. All their lives are markedby it.


So, I think, at this point, we need a very brief five minute segue on the Kingdom of God to get a handle on Paul’s emphasis here. Matthew is the writer who has the most to say about the Kingdom. He quotes more of Jesus’ comments about the Kingdom than any other writer.


Matthew records Jesus saying three times that ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near’. By Jesus’ arrival on the scene, the Kingdom from abovehas come near to the people of earth.

Jesus also describes in various ways the Kingdom of God on earth as something which starts small, but grows, and eventually takes over.


He describes it as a tiny mustard seed that ends up being the largest of garden plants. He describes it as being a small amount of yeast that works through a massive load of flour until it mixes through the whole dough.


On top of that, Jesus prays for God’s Kingdom to come [i.e. to come to completion] and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

So, that’s the nature of the kingdom – it’s come near and it’s going to grow. What about the content of the kingdom?


Again, Jesus used a parable to explain it. The Kingdom is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. Meanwhile an enemy sowed weeds.

In his explanation of the parable, he tells the disciples, the good seed stands for the people of the Kingdom.


And then elsewhere, Jesus said that the good news about the Kingdom is being preached and people are forcing their way into the Kingdom.


So, now we’ve seen that the Kingdom has come near – on earth, from heaven – and we’re expecting it to grow out of something very small.

And now, we’re seeing that people on earth are pressing their way into the kingdom. So, it looks like Kingdom growth is linked to people.


And, we see, that they enter in by hearing good news – which we know is the gospel. So, the gospel serves the growth of the kingdom of heaven on earth. That should help us not to make the mistake of thinking that kingdom growth means the overhaul or reformation of society.


No, kingdom growth means, it started with Jesus plus no one, and every person that repents and believes in Jesus is added to the Kingdom, until the full number, which only God knows, have come in, and then the plant will be fully grown, and the yeast will have worked through the wholedough, and the field will be harvest white.


Now how does that relate to service in suffering for the Kingdom? The answer is, it relates when we understand that the Kingdom is advanced by people entering it. They enter it by believing the good news about Jesus. And God has left us who have already entered in, as his workmen and ambassadors for Jesus, so that others may believe and enter too.


The Kingdom is advanced by faithful service on the part of suffering saints. Jesus said in Matthew 19, ‘there are some eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs [no wife or children] for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’. In other words, thatself-denying choice serves to advance the Kingdom.


Do you remember when Jesus was asked by a rich ruler what he must do to inherit eternal life? Jesus told him, ‘sell everything you have and give to the poor, then follow me’. And he went away sad. What does Jesus say to him? ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God’. Why?

Because to enter the Kingdom you must suffer loss here below.


The word is this, ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22). So, what should we expect as followers of Christ and ambassadors for Jesus?

Knowing that we are here to serve the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth, we should expect difficulty. The Christian life is a difficult life.


Oh, how we need to make this clear. We all have a cross to bear as we follow in the footsteps of our suffering saviour, Jesus. Anybody who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. All of us have to be prepared to lose everything if we’re called to it, in order to advance the Kingdom and inherit the Kingdom.


And as we lay down our lives for the Kingdom, it is evidence that we are worthy of the Kingdom – that Jesus really has qualified us to inherit the Kingdom (Colossians chapter 1, verse 12).

This all might sound stark, but there is a sobering warning to us too. It comes from Jesus like this: ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough [but in anticipation of the cost] looks back, is fit for service in the Kingdom of God’.


That warning brings me to the two characters I missed out of the sketch at the beginning. I missed Mark and I missed Demas. And that’s because they are useful for pressing on this point about looking back. There must be steadfastness, even when the heat is on. And the heat was on for Paul and his associates.


Mark, or John Mark as he’s referred to elsewhere, was the man who wrote the gospel of Mark. He was the cousin of Barnabas according to verse 10. And he was the man who had deserted Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey.


Luke doesn’t tell us why it had happened, just that, when Paul and Barnabas had it on their hearts to leave Antioch and to go back and visit the believers in all the towns where they had preached the word, to see how they were doing, Barnabas wanted to take Mark with them, but Paul thought it unwise, because Barnabas had deserted them in Pamphylia and ‘had not continued with them in the work’.


So, Paul’s objection to taking Mark, whether his objection was a good judgment or not, was based on the fact, Mark had stopped working for the Kingdom.


We know from Luke’s account, that Barnabas and Paul disagreed sharply about this judgment, and so Paul went on the journey as planned, and Barnabas took Mark and they went to Cyprus instead.


We also know that, now, as Paul writes, Mark is with Paul and is a comfort to Paul and is a fellow worker with Paul. We also know from 2 Timothy 4, that later, Mark was somewhere in the vicinity of Ephesus because Paul instructs Timothy to get him and bring him to Paul. The reason is, ‘because he is helpful to me in my ministry’.


Now this is conjecture, but I suspect that Barnabas and Mark were both faithful and fruitful in their efforts on Cyprus. Later in Acts, Luke says that a man named Mnason – an early disciple from Cyprus – gave them shelter. I think that Mark proved himself a hard worker for the Kingdom during that missionary journey and that Paul’s fears, whilst not unfounded, had been perhaps misplaced.


Demas on the other hand is a tragedy. Again, 2 Timothy 4 supplies the details. Paul needs the urgent help of Timothy because Demas has deserted him. He says, ‘Demas in love with this world has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica’.


There is no evidence that Demas ever returned. The heat in Rome ramped up, it seems, after Paul sent his letters to Colossae. For Demas the cost was too much and the lust of life and the lust of the world was too great a pull for him to remain in the service of God’s Kingdom.

He looked back and was not fit for the Kingdom.


The contrast then between Mark and Demas is stark. In the church there will be Peter-like stumbling, there will be Mark-like mistakes, there will be disciple-like failings, there will be Luke-like faithlessness, but bewarethe love of the world, because there is such a thing as Judas-like betrayal and Demas-like desertion. No one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom!


The prosperity gospel teaches heaven on earth for followers of Jesus; it promotes the opposite of what we’re hearing right now. That might not be what’s being preached in evangelicalism today, but there is a subtle form of prosperity gospel that is abroad in evangelical Christianity as far as I can tell.


It is this: ‘the gospel as an appendage to the good life’. It teaches us to embrace the gospel minus gospel suffering. It subtly encourages the minimisation of cross bearing and promotes comfort and ease. It teaches us to amass nice things and foster security.


But to do these things whilst maintaining the nice parts of following Jesus. It doesn’t ask, what more can I give away? It asks, how little do I have to part with? That veneer-type Christianity is lethal! Because, when suffering comes – and it will – the veneer cracks. The Christianity proves brittle.


So, what should we be like? Well, I think, we need to embrace suffering now. Jesus said to the rich ruler, ‘sell everything and give to the poor, now. Do that now and follow me’.


So, live light to the world now. Live light to money, now. Live light to spare time, now. Live light to comforts, now. Live light to excess, now. Live light to TV, now. Live light to praise, now.

Live light to everything that, when real suffering comes will be stripped away like lightening. And do that now, so that when it comes you won’t miss a beat.


You already lived so light to all that stuff that now it’s gone, you’re not ruffled. Your feet are firmly in the Kingdom of God where your ultimate treasure is and nothing, not moth nor vermin, can destroy it, and where no thief can steal it.


That’s what we need to be like. And it’s what the Colossians needed to be like too. Epaphras was praying specifically to the end that the Colossians 1. stand firm in the will of God, 2. be mature, and 3. be fully assured, according to verse 12.


Standing firm in the will of God means focussed on the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus prayed to his father, ‘your will be done, your kingdom come’, right? So, that is the will of God – therefore, stand firm in it. Don’t be diverted from it.


Mature, means not tossed around by whimsical things that are about the comforts of this world. Mature means being able to reject the world and its whims and to be white-hot for the Kingdom of God. Not short-termist, but mature about treasure that lasts.


And fully assured means, never doubting that it’s worth it. The Kingdom of heaven is so worth it. It’s like treasure that a man found in a field and when he found it, he went and sold everything to buy that field. Because everything of any value is laid up as treasure in heaven – not here.


Are you assured of that? You need to be! Demas wasn’t! Mark looked, for a moment, like he might not have been either, but he came good. He knuckled down for the Kingdom, because where your treasure is, Jesus said, ‘there will your heart be also’.

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